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BEST OF isaSCIENCE2013–2016

BEST OF isaSCIENCE2013–2016

An Interdisciplinary Collectionof Essays on Music and Arts

Ursula Hemetek and Cornelia Szabó-Knotik (eds.)

Satz und Umschlaggestaltung: Nikola Stevanović

Umschlagbild: Stephan Polzer

Hergestellt in der EU


This publication was funded by

Ursula Hemetek and Cornelia Szabó-Knotik (eds.):

Best of isaScience 2013–2016. An Interdisciplinary Collection of Essays on Music and Arts.

Wien: HOLLITZER Verlag, 2017

© HOLLITZER Verlag, Wien 2017


der HOLLITZER Baustoffwerke Graz GmbH

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Im Falle noch offener, berechtigter Ansprüche wird um Mitteilung des Rechteinhabers ersucht.

ISBN pdf: 978-3-99012-433-8

ISBN epub: 978-3-99012-434-5



Editors’ IntroductionUrsula Hemetek, Cornelia Szabó-Knotik


Breaks in History: Turning Points The Arts Hand-in-Hand with Recent Historic UpheavalsJulya Rabinowich

From Cult to CultureA Reflective Journey to the Origins of CultureDieter Berner

CHAPTER 1 - Minorities, Musical Traditions and Power Structures

Performing Romanipe: Music and Self-Representation of RomaChristiane Fennesz-Juhasz

Archive and Cultural Memory - The Burgenland CroatsGerda Lechleitner

Koliko smo toliko smo - We Are What We AreMusic, Dance, and Cultural Memory from BelowMarko Kölbl

CHAPTER 2 - Music as a Tool of Communication

Rituals and Music TherapyElena Fitzthum, Sandra Lutz Hochreutener, Adriano Primadei, Monika Smetana

Mind Reading during Ensemble Performance:Communicating with Nonverbal SignalsLaura Bishop, Werner Goebl

CHAPTER 3 - Music as Cultural Memory and its Rituals

Eurovision and the Ritual Music of Euro-PatriotismIvan Raykoff

Popular Music, Memory and HeritageA Conversation between Ana Hofman and Rosa Reitsamer

Repackaging Heroes:Emerging Identities of (Post-)Yugoslav MusicZdravko Blažeković, Tatjana Marković, Leon Stefanija

Historical Turning Points and Perspectives on Old MusicMaria Helfgott

Staged Rituals in Austria between the WarsChristian Glanz, Anita Mayer-Hirzberger, Cornelia Szabó-Knotik


Contributors’ Biographies



isaScience is the scholarly presentation program of the University’s (mdw – University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna) research activities. To include it in the isa – the Artistic International Summer Academy – was the wish of Ulrike Sych, who in 2013 held the position of Vice Rector responsible for research and is now our Rector. This idea was well received by Johannes Meissl, the Artistic Director of isa, and the editors of this volume were asked to function as coordinators and program chairs of such a project.

As a scholarly conference format with a “summer academy” character, isaScience has been developed successfully since 2013, presenting a great diversity of disciplines, approaches, research traditions and presentation formats. We have tried to illustrate the broad range of research activities carried out at mdw by its local protagonists and support it with international inputs.

After five years it seemed timely to look back and collect some of the most important contributions in a publication.

This book is not meant as a documentation of isaScience 2013–2016. It is a collection of selected contributions that are intended to give an impression of the challenges and benefits of transdisciplinary research connected to the arts as well as of the variety of formats in which the cooperation of disciplines and individuals is presented at isaScience.

Each year adopted a different motto or overall subject as an umbrella for the artistic as well as scholarly program of isa: “Scandal” (2013), “Times of Change” (2014), “Music and Cultural Memory” (2015), and “Drama, Ritual, Cultic Acts” (2016). While including contributions from all the years and topics in this volume, we decided not to follow chronology in the arrangement of the articles. The contents as well as the format of the articles suggested a content-related order that led to the three chapters of this book.

The three chapters are preceded by two keynote speeches that were delivered at the opening of isa in 2014 (Julya Rabinowich: Breaks in History: Turning Points. The Arts Hand-in-Hand with Recent Historic Upheavals) and 2016 (Dieter Berner: From Cult to Culture. A Reflective Journey to the Origins of Culture). The keynote speakers were chosen due to their reputation and familiarity with the topic. For the keynotes in the book we have maintained the format of a spoken text, differing from the other articles which are revised versions of what had been presented.

The three chapters try to find a meaningful combination and grouping of diverse elements resulting from the many disciplines represented in the book which mirror the situation at mdw. According to the order of the articles there are ethnomusicology, music therapy, acoustics, historical musicology, popular music studies and music sociology. Gender/queer as well as post-colonial studies are an important approach in some of the articles. And music is the connecting topic for all of them.

Chapter 1 – Minorities, Musical Traditions and Power Structures – assembles articles dealing with Roma and Burgenland Croats. The papers come from the ethnomusicological field of research on music and minorities, which has become a quite influential international direction in the discipline. Starting with an article on Roma music and the different manifestations of what is considered to be “their music” by the Roma themselves, it continues with two critical reflections of music and cultural memory for the minority of the Burgenland Croats. In all three approaches we find the challenging of power structures, and self-representation in contrast to definitions of the minority by the majority. The practices of defining cultural memory – the minority’s as well as the majority’s – are thoughtfully analysed.

Chapter 2 – Music as a Tool of Communication – considers the longstanding image of music as the meta-language (of the heart) in the field of two such different disciplines as music therapy and acoustics-based music performance science. While the text on music therapy collects the joint presentation of two rituals within clinical therapeutic work, the third reflects in a historical study the rituals which make up tarantism.

Chapter 3 – Music as Cultural Memory and its Rituals – starts with a contribution on the Eurovision song contest as one of the most popular European musical rituals. It continues with an article on popular music and activist choirs and their socio-political implications based on a conversation between two music sociologists, which in its original form was accompanied by practical demonstrations. The next piece reflects on post-Yugoslav strategies of creating and/or reframing music history in the light of the respective national “inventions of tradition”, followed by a survey of several decisive moments in the development of early music movements. The final text unites reflections on the different levels of Viennese musical life in the special year of 1928, each based on certain examples, in order to present different ways of illustrating music history.

Many people have contributed to this publication. First of all, we want to thank the authors for their inspiring contributions and discipline in terms of timing which was necessary due to an extremely tight schedule. We are grateful to Mike Delaney who is responsible for the language editing and Nora Bammer who finally brought the manuscript into shape for submission to the publisher. We want to thank Johannes Meissl for his support and the University for the financial resources.

We as editors have felt the hardships but also the joy of transcending disciplinary borders in these months of intensive work. All these years of isaScience were a constant endeavour for inter-disciplinarity and for mutual understanding and respect. An arts university is inevitably confronted with the great challenge of research in relation to art. We see this book as a manifestation of the productive discussion of the arts in research.

Ursula Hemetek and Cornelia Szabó-Knotik in June 2017




Before we go plunging fearlessly into the maelstrom of history, let me tell you the fine print: I’m not a historian, I’m not a researcher, I’m not a musician, and I don’t make films either. So right up front, I’d like to ask you to excuse me for any missteps, misinterpretations, or gaps in my knowledge: as an author, I can only draw on those things that reveal themselves to me. And I’m an author who’s driven by the collection and formulation of images in words. But like any other artist, I’m also a contemporary witness to my own writing. As well as an observer of all those things that influence and challenge my artistic work. Like any other artist, I try to become and to function as a seismograph for upheavals and watershed events, capturing and recording fragmentary moments that will shape the years to come. Viewed this way, artistic work is always also work to capture and record the seismic oscillations of history, sea changes knocking at the doors of society, structures, or geopolitics, whether they take place in a macrocosm or a microcosm, whether they affect a minority or the overwhelming majority. As echoes of both political events and breaks that will impact our everyday existence, be they war or peace. Be they deafeningly loud and impressively huge, or quiet, inconspicuous and small. So one can assume that art is always a reaction to such a tremor, always a sympathetic vibration, impacting both the outer and the inner. Artists have to manage this transformation of themselves into something like a mobile uterus, within which new ideas, new images and new sounds can mature in the fragile weightlessness of its protection. And with them new realities. That which one cannot name or reflect upon in the outside world cannot possibly exist within the inner cosmos. But conversely and paradoxically: that which isn’t dreamed will never come to pass. Music, motions, images and words are hallmarks of our history. They’ve accompanied us from humanity’s very beginnings. As magical thought, as desperate attempts to survive in the great dark unknown, as a consolation for loneliness and the fear of death, and as chroniclers of our millennia-long journey on this planet. But this system of comprehension and survival has not always been used to facilitate comprehension and survival. Various turning points in our history have seen art instrumentalised as propaganda, as a means to an end. Dark stains on the gleaming-white robes of the muse. This repurposing from a thing of beauty to a precursor of horrors represents a line of demarcation between philosophical reflection and a pathologically deranged system, between peace and war, and needs to be looked at more closely: the enthusiasm for war, the intoxicated inspiration of European artists in 1914 as well as the aesthetics of National Socialism with its book-burnings and degenerate art, with Riefenstahl’s images of strength and beauty that, as we know, ended in “Arbeit macht frei“ – “work brings freedom”; Communism’s institution and enforcement of socialist realism, the artistic work in secret to which many artists had to resort as a result, and not to forget the risky, insanely courageous dissemination of forbidden literature and films from the West, and all the consequences for the art world up to the fall of the Iron Curtain. Wherever strict regulations banished playfulness from art, art all the more quickly descended into the realm of propaganda, ossifying in its service to a particular clientele, turning away from what was originally its sense and purpose: pointing out the beautiful and the true. In any coercive structure, playfulness is taboo – as are the freedom of art and the freedom of speech. But it is precisely the species of homo ludens that will continue to develop itself with ease. And in essence, all art is also playful development, no matter how seriously it is meant and lived, no matter how hard the work entailed by its creation, and all the more so if it takes on serious themes. The playful element consists in the testing of one’s own abilities, the coordination of one’s own talents. It’s learning within one’s social environment: Adults who lose this ability also lose an indispensable wellspring for their own selves. And I do assume that all artists wish not only to be seismographs of society and its changes, but also to involve themselves in the playful development of aesthetic and social norms.

In order to have stated it clearly at the outset: Europe’s integration should be regarded as a project of peace. Art, on the other hand, should be regarded as a conveyor of that which is unknown and cannot be understood by means of logic. Music and images and words are associated with a different category of neurotransmitter. They’re vehicles of information that speak to the brain and to the heart in equal measure. They’re an overall whole formed by the sum of many small parts. An interweaving of information, of feeling, of inner images and outer views. Art conveys the authentic, art reveals that which is hidden. Art can be abused in order to mobilize and agitate the masses, with especially perverse results thanks to its sure aim at the subconscious level – but this marks art’s transformation into its dark sibling: propaganda. More on that in a moment. Art, in any case, also functions as a sort of glue that, repeatedly and across borders, has held Europe together and formed our European identity, which is ideally a greater common identity as opposed to the rising nationalism that threatens to devour, digest and assimilate any structures other than its own.

The absence of art’s freedom is a telling indicator of dictatorship, something like a litmus test of the society in question. Without fail, it is dictatorships that seek to tame art like some mythical beast that might pose a danger to them in the future. But mythical beasts cannot be tamed: they exist outside applicable norms. There are no domesticated mythical beasts. If you put a unicorn in an enclosed pasture next to a cow, its horn will immediately rot off should it fail to flee. And it is with this thought that we begin to approach the dark side of creativity, namely institutionalized art, propaganda.

This year’s edition of isa takes on three major upheavals, three massive earthquakes in the history of Europe: the redistribution of territory following Napoleon’s defeat, the outbreak of World War I, and the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. I’ll be placing a greater emphasis on more recent history, not only because the most recent of these upheavals has directly impacted the participants’ lives right up to the present day, but also because I myself bore witness to it, on location in Berlin during the weeks after the Wall had fallen. At that time, I, too – like most of today’s participants – stood at the dawn of my adult life, with all its questions and confusions. So let’s start with the year –

1814: The Battle of the Nations near Leipzig saw Napoleon suffer a decisive defeat. And following the revolution that ensued in France, the Congress of Vienna was called in 1814/15 in order to establish a new order in Europe. There, Europe was remade yet again, with borders shifting once more. The basic idea behind this set of political negotiations between the European powers is commonly referred to as the “Restoration”, meaning the reinstatement of the status quo from before the French Revolution. And that revolution, having already eaten its own children, now began the process of digesting them. The dessert in such a meal is that coveted cake, the land that is to be carved up. The chairman of the Congress, Prince Metternich, referred to himself in this function as “Europe’s Coachman” – which brings up peculiar associations with Taurus the bull, who was approaching precisely that Europe. A Metternich who viewed himself as a string-puller, teamster, broncobuster of the gods – not exactly a modest self-conception. In any case, the balance between the five great European powers of Russia, Great Britain, Austria, Prussia and France was successfully restored. And alongside matters of power politics, there was no shortage of music and other entertainment: those who are on the move politically hardly want to get rusty in other respects. So the Congress danced. Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park was published, and Vienna saw the première of the newest and final version of Ludwig van Beethoven’s opera Fidelio – a work of liberation, as the composer himself put it. This story of a blameless person rescued by the principles of equality and fraternity represents the greatest possible counterweight to propaganda, standing in opposition to tyranny of any and every sort. And it is said that Beethoven was also quite interested in the story of Leonore, which is thought to be based on a real-life event from the period of the French Revolution. Leonore disguised herself as a man in order to liberate her husband, who had been imprisoned for political reasons. Fidelio, however, was to remain Beethoven’s only opera. The year of 1814 may have definitively drawn Europe’s new borders, but these borders were subjected to a massive challenge in 1914. A challenge in the face of which hardly any room remained for artists’ dreams of liberation. What was called for in 1914 was the mobilisation of the masses, rather than the audience’s subtly entertaining edification. Because now, after all, it was no longer humanity, but its opposing force – hate – that was to be heaved onto the European stage.

1914: Let’s take a look at the propaganda, and at the corruption of the supposedly free arts by politics. The bitter price for this shared hysteria would only become due later. A wave was in the process of gathering that would proceed to sweep over Europe and drown it. Everyone suddenly turned to nationalism; vendettas, plans, and war strategies were formulated, with everyone confident of their own victory. The voices of reason were too few to compete with the loud battle songs that were being struck up. And only a very few artists refrained from joining in the general dynamic that was at work. In 1914, the avant-garde quite literally lived up to its name as the bellicose events began to unfold, being more than willing to do its part in creating the mess that was to come. As early as 1909, the Italian futurist Marinetti had glorified war as the “world’s only form of hygiene”, for which one must die with enthusiasm. Trakl, Max Ernst, Otto Dix, Alfred Döblin – all of them volunteered for military service. For a new world! For a new order! All over Europe, war posters bloomed like festering boils. “Jeder Schuss ein Russ” – One Russian with every shot, one can read there. “Jeder Stoß ein Franzos” – A Frenchman with every shove. “Jeder Tritt ein Brit” – A Brit with every kick. “Jeder Klaps ein Japs” – A Jap with every slap. All of these (were) anxiously awaited and yearned-for echoes of that initial shot in Sarajevo. It starts with making fun of names and culminates in the entrails that ooze from eviscerated bodies. The intensely longed-for extinguishment of the Other. The death of those who were portrayed and stylized as foreign and strange – a kind of foreign that had by no means always been foreign. Entire countries should be wiped off the map, people were proclaiming. Alienation of this sort makes brutality possible. De-personalisation – or even de-humanisation – makes violence and destruction possible. It’s difficult to torture someone you know. Pity needs to be eliminated by all available means, and the best way to do so is with war propaganda, which for the first time in European history was employed in such a targeted and all-encompassing manner. Both here and elsewhere: Hate in images and sounds. Agitation eats its children.

In Russia, the avant-garde was just as hard at work on such alienation: Malevich, of whom I otherwise think a lot, presented war atrocities as coarse propagandistic visual jokes, and my otherwise beloved Mayakovski provided these with their folksy and simple-minded texts. A Russian farmwoman, sized like a giant goddess of war and dressed in a colourful rustic costume, lifts the ridiculously puny body of the Austrian soldier impaled on her pitchfork, and laughs gleefully as his blood sprays all over her festive garb. This giant figure, rising up above mountains and rivers, seems like a roly-poly, jovial goddess Kali, like a caricatured counterpart to Kubin’s striding apocalyptic rider who, having dismounted, has taken on the hooves of his horse as his own, the ground beneath him trembling as a forerunner of the tanks, of the armies that will soon attack each other. These tremors were felt in Vienna – and the newspaper Neue Freie Presse titled on August 1st, the day of mobilization: “Those curious about life (…) will now experience war (…) for the first time. Sensations that have never before been felt, a feeling that blossoms within us surprisingly like a first love.” This is a verbal eroticism of violence. It was only later that Orwell would deal in a literary fashion with the official transfiguration of the horrible into the beautiful, but here, we already see Orwell’s Ministry of Love being foreshadowed. And his Ministry of Truth. And even before either of those: The Final Solution. The Final Solution was the ultimate exaggeration of how to downplay an extermination, murder passed off as an accessory, as cleansing, similar to the hoped-for cleansing by means of this first war, in which Hitler took part as a corporal. And now to our third and final emphasis: the year –

1989 represents that turning point between eras that I myself experienced as a witness – which is something I can’t, of course, claim for 1914 and definitely not for 1814, unless I’m a vampire. And a great many things, (if not quite everything) would suggest that I’m not. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 became my fall of the wall, not just any fall of the wall. After all, I was familiar with the system that lay beyond that wall. A great many others weren’t. The ideas about how things might actually be behind the Iron Curtain were nebulous, shaky, and certainly not set in stone. But what was overpowering about it was how, on both sides, people were willing to believe in the best in human beings. To run to each other with open arms – that was the first impulsive reaction, the initial burst of emotion. It was only much later that defensive attitudes were to develop.

I was there, in Berlin, several days after the Berlin Wall fell. There were theatre performances, concerts and readings all along the length of the Wall. Puppeteers from England, musicians from Italy, and street artists from all over. People breaking up the part of the Wall that was painted. People dangling their feet over the wall and toasting each other. The incredulous faces. The excited phone calls with my relatives in St. Petersburg. Everything had become possible. Everything. Over the years that followed, the arts scene in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc experienced a positively explosive production of critical, funny and nasty works: the lid had been taken off the pressure cooker. But it wasn’t to remain that way. The market would come to rule this segment as well, according to its own inflexible laws. But none of the artists were aware of that yet.

What I experienced as a 19-year-old in Berlin was my own personal fall of the Iron Curtain. I, who had come to Vienna via Budapest in a whirlwind cloak-and-dagger operation as a quota refugee in 1977, had already experienced Budapest as my own personal Checkpoint Charlie. As a tightrope walk between the worlds. It didn’t feel like the USSR, at least not like the one I’d known. But Budapest was still quite different from what awaited us in the Western world. So different that I viewed that city as some strange place of transit, and even as a seven-year-old, it was clear to me that it was a mere way station, just a place to catch our breath, from which we would set out into uncharted waters. In 1977, we crossed the border – a point of no return back then, and so open today. It’s so permeable; it’s so unbelievably easy to cross this area now, I thought recently on the train from Vienna to Budapest. Even just a couple decades ago, the price for crossing this border could have been one’s life. That’s how fast the world changes. There were watchtowers there until recently, and soft, ploughed-up earth to reveal the footprints of the escapees more clearly; gunshots, dogs, a couple of daredevils, and the many who didn’t make it.

And now, there I sit, on a comfortable train that even has a restaurant car, drinking Coca Cola and looking out the window, and nowhere can this terror be felt: people get off and on, speaking various languages, and the menu is multilingual, too. The world is growing together, one thinks – we can eat, talk, travel with one another. We can be in motion together.

Berlin, 1989: that was a mutual movement by the West and the East, towards each other, meeting each other, intermingling with each other. With all the hopes, with all the wishes, and with all the misunderstandings and failures that were to follow. We are all human beings, and to hope and to err is human. We, the masses, had no idea what would end up happening during that fall, with the toppling process beginning in slow motion and then gathering such incredible speed that we were hardly able to catch our breath as the air whooshed by. What Europe would become, and what Europe would be denied. It was all drunkenness and euphoria. All at once, everything was a single whole, something very much like a pan-European orgasm. “Stay with us a bit, you’re so beautiful,” we called out to that moment of unity. And as with every other moment of unity, it was clear that this one, too, could not last forever. The questions as to the new identity that would emerge from this melding hadn’t even been asked yet. But the unbelievably many new opportunities had to be taken.

So here we are in 2014: The First World War is now 100 years in the past. And the Eastern Bloc dissolved 25 years ago. We’re gathered here today, in Austria, as a group that comes from the most diverse countries. We want to go in-depth, to network with each other, and to lend each other mutual support in that which, here, is our greatest common denominator: creativity and intellectual exchange. Drawing on many sources simultaneously, as we do here, can result in something that’s more than the sum of its parts. The permeation of various European “aggregate states”. We want to look back and draw parallels between then and now. We want to discover and highlight new aspects. We want to continue developing professionally and artistically.

And I’m happy that in 2014, thanks to our combined strengths, another reality is possible than that broken, that artificially and violently fragmented Europe of yesteryear. This new Europe, with all its intensity, its failures and its opportunities, is our common future. So with this in mind: let the creative playfulness and the creative seriousness begin!


1This keynote was presented at isaScience 2014 in Reichenau/Rax with the overall theme “Times of Change”.



In the 1960s, when I was trained as an actor at the Reinhardt Seminar in Vienna, I was concerned about the social relevance of my new profession. That was entirely in keeping with the spirit of the age; like many of my contemporaries I was convinced that the task of the theatre was to bring about an enlightened society based on reason.

Immanuel Kant said:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage or immaturity. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance.This nonage is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another! Sapere Aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding!

The influence of these ideals did in fact bring about an important change in our culture during the late 1960s. A fresh wind of reason and political commitment blew away the cobwebs of mystification and kitsch emotions which characterised the art of our parents’ generation. I became quite certain that theatre, providing only boring entertainment for bourgeois season-ticket holders, would soon die a natural death.

My son, who was born in 1968, wasn’t exposed to the old fairy tales about Hansel and Gretel and the big bad wolf; instead he heard about Willibald the digger driver and his utopian dream of workers taking charge of the factories and seizing control of their economic destiny. But when the boy was old enough to read, I had to admit that he preferred fantasies: he wanted to hear the old fairy tales. I turned to Bruno Bettelheim to discover why that was the case.

This was the beginning of a long journey for me, and now I should like to take you along with me as I retrace my steps to the source of that powerful river where I steer my boat today, as a writer and director of film stories.

The first place is East Berlin, where Berthold Brecht was running his Theatre of Critical Reason “The Berlin Brecht Ensemble”. Interestingly enough, it was here that the Brecht scholar Ernst Schumacher, who ran the Institute of Theatre Studies at the Humboldt University from 1969, provided a fascinating psychological insight into the origins of the dramatic arts:

People in the early Stone Age, who lived in hunter-gatherer societies, responded to natural events such as thunder and lightning in a similar way to chimpanzees; the whole group would jump up and down, screaming and beating their fists against their chests. A threatening gesture to release the blind energy of their fear. In Schumacher’s view, this animalistic reaction gave rise to one of the first cultural achievements of homo sapiens; primitive man would ritualise this procedure before beginning to hunt.

The vehement physical reactions which come up out of their remembrance then become dances. The emotional outbursts are heightened to become rhythms. The screams, accompanied by primitive instruments, become music. Animal masks and skins are employed, the ritual dancers become accustomed to the terrifying sight of the alien beings they attempt to slaughter – they even begin to identify with them.

They abandon their everyday life and emerge from it into a different reality which they have created: the reality of their joint imagination. This ritual gets them in the mood for their adventure, focuses their energy and allows them to experience their commonality on a sensual level. A commonality which provides them with courage and strength. All this happens in a magical place, a place governed by just one law, the law of the game. And the magical formula is “as if”.

Johan Huizinger, the Dutch scholar of linguistics and culture, had already described the development of culture from playing, and the function of games, in his 1938 work “Homo Ludens”. He shows that “as if” behaviour can be found both in linguistic metaphor (for example, in the expression “give me a hand”) and in myth and cult activities.

The next stop on my journey is a town in Poland called Wroclaw, where theatrical innovator Jerzy Grotowski founded a Theatre Laboratory, initially with just a small group of actors. The performances, held in a room measuring just 10 metres by 10 metres on the first floor of a building on the main square of Wroclaw, were open to an audience numbering no more than 30, because otherwise the sacred bond – and I use that term advisedly – the sacred bond with the cult-like actions of the actors would not have been possible. Each member of the audience would be shown by Grotowski or one of the actors to a seat, and then he or she would take part in the theatrical “encounter”.

The sequence of scenes that comprised the event was developed by the artists in extremely personal improvisations, resulting in confrontations with figures from literature such as Dr. Faustus or characters from religious myths. Fools and redeemers, holy figures and magicians were the protagonists. The montage of scenes had the effect of a liturgical act and would be performed for several years at a time – as was the case with the last production, entitled “Apocalypsis cum Figuris”, which the company took to guest shows in London, Paris and Berlin. The cult character of the performance was retained even then, because only particular locations such as churches and museums were chosen, and the audience numbers were always limited.

I quote from The Theatre of Jerzy Grotowski by Jennifer Kumiega, London 1987: “The core of Grotowski’s theatre is the communion between actor and spectator; he called his concept ‘the poor theatre’”.

Figure 1: Stage of the “poor theatre” in Wrocław: Sala teatru laboratorium.Copyright: Institut Grotowskiego, Wrocław

Figure 2: Ryszard Cieslak as Constant Prince, 1965. Copyright: Institut Grotowskiego, Wrocław

Alongside Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, the Teatr Laboratorium Grotowskiego in Wrocław was a popular destination for theatre people in the late 1960s, such as Peter Brook and Ariane Mnouchkine, who were exploring new perspectives for modern theatre. This applied in particular to members of the innovative New York theatre scene, including representatives of Julian Beck’s “Living Theatre“, Elen Stewart’s “La MaMa” and Schechner’s “Performance Group”.

Figure 3: Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook, 1975. Copyright: Institut Grotowskiego, Wrocław

But just as the rest of the theatre world was coming to terms with the idea of “poor theatre”, Jerzy Grotowski changed direction. By the turn of the new decade, in 1970, he had announced his abandonment of a strictly theatrical context for his work and the beginnings of experiments he called “paratheatrical research“. He travelled to Australia, Japan and Bali, and he visited the Indians of North America and Canada, studying their theatrical cults and taking part in them. The background to all his activities was the realisation that play is always connected to the yearning for ecstasy. The word comes from the Greek word extasis, which means going beyond oneself and is derived from ex histasthai, to step outside oneself. When associated with religion, the term refers to a kind of trance. In a state of ecstasy, a person steps outside his familiar environment and normal modes of perception, entering a realm where an entirely different kind of perception is possible. Grotowski believed that earlier societies, which still had a closer relationship to nature, knew that the desire for ecstasy derives from a fundamental need in human beings. In a state of ecstasy, the hardships of everyday life become less overwhelming, so an individual can sense that he or she is part of an all-embracing cosmos. Grotowski’s paratheatrical events now became dedicated to the complete abolition of the division between audience and actors. Participants were to create the theatrical event themselves.

I took part in a four-hour theatrical event of this type in Berlin, which was entitled Nocne Czuwanie (night vigil). Apart from the title, nobody was told anything about the event or what to expect from it. The uncertainty felt by the participants as they entered the space created in them a feeling of openness and sensitivity. Each participant was merely informed of a few basic rules, which were essentially as follows: everything is non-verbal. There is no talking, but you can express yourself physically in any way imaginable. Don’t try to create theatre or dance; just react to the others and follow your impulses. Nobody is to be hit or injured or sexually harassed. If you want to stop participating you can sit down somewhere and watch. But you can’t leave. When I asked how I would know when it begins and ends, I was told: don’t worry, you’ll know.

Then we were led into a large gymnasium where a few men and women of various ages were crouched on the floor, apparently waiting for something. Gradually more people turned up, and then one of them – the person who had told me the rules – started moving slowly. After just a few minutes we all started running around the hall as if we were being chased, and soon I found myself jumping up and down with somebody else like a maniac. This initial burst of energy subsided, and the participants started to relate calmly and peacefully to their physical presence and the presence of the others. What actually happened is hard to describe, but it was something like a disco experience – though without the pulsating music or any predetermined rhythmic actions. As a result, we developed a particular sensitivity to the body language of the other people, and we found ourselves surrendering by following spontaneous impulses. After about four hours, which passed quickly, the hall began to empty, and everybody met in the entrance area by the light of dawn, to drink a glass of water and say farewell. Only then did I realise that there had been three initiators among the participants; they had discreetly influenced the event by drumming gently and guiding the proceedings. I went home early the following morning feeling very refreshed, with the feeling that I had discovered something crucial about myself and my relationship to other people.

The theatre director, writer and actor André Gregory narrates a similar if perhaps more spectacular event in Louis Malle’s 1981 film “My Dinner with André”. He describes in the film how, in July 1975, he attended a paratheatrical session lasting over 48 hours in the Theatre Laboratory in Wrocław. The session was entitled “La Montagne de Flame”, and it was held in a remote barn and the surrounding countryside. The participants were led through the forest until they were exhausted, and there was also dancing and singing and playing with fire.

The aim was a meeting, conceived of as an inter-human encounter, where man would be himself, regain the unity of his being, and become creative and spontaneous in relation to others.

The next port of call on my journey leads me to an event in Ancient Greece which was crucial not only for the theatre but for the creation of the Hellenic-Christian humanist worldview. It took place during the Dionysian festival in 535 BC in Athens. Dionysius was the very popular orgiastic god of wine and fertility, the bringer of life; according to the myths, he emerged from the ocean and proceeded to captivate everyone around him. His followers would achieve a state of ecstasy, abandoning all inhibitions and demonstrating their transformation by being made up as rams or adopting the forms of satyrs and nymphs, singing and playing music, wearing masks and costumes and dancing in wild processions. In modern carnival processions we can get an idea of such events.

The tyrant Peisistratos, who ruled Athens in the sixth century BC, adopted the cult of Dionysius as part of the state religion and hired a guy called Thespis as the artistic director of the Dionisian festival, which was held each March. For six days the entire population of Athens would engage in wild celebrations in honour of the god. Thespis travelled around the surrounding area with a sort of stage-carriage for a group of singers in animal masks or made up as rams. They would also recite texts. In addition, the poet Arion of Lesbos developed a new kind of verse known as the dithyramb, which can be translated as “for tragic manner”, to recount stories of heroes. Intent on coming up with something new, Thespis instructed his singers to include the dithyrambs Arion had written – and soon realised that this form of verse was very suitable for something more dramatic. It occurred to him that one person could respond to the verses sung by the chorus. The gripping interaction between lines recited by the individual – presumably Thespis himself – and those recited or sung by the chorus came to embody the fundamental structure of Greek tragedy.

I quote from the ten-volume History of European Theatre by the Viennese theatre scholar Heinz Kindermann, published 1957:

This interaction based on dialogue marked the beginning of the artistic process of recognising the self in others which has been the main characteristic of Western theatre ever since. At that juncture Greek culture reached a state of maturity which not only saw cult games becoming cult works of art; the art created in this way was also capable of prompting a dialectical process, of appreciating the world from opposites.

Furthermore, it should be noted that this moment also sees a form of perception entering the collective consciousness which still differentiates between people’s way of thinking and feeling in the West and in the Orient. This new mode of perception is the discovery of the self, the individual, in conflict with the divine being.

It has always been difficult for us to comprehend that the concept of the individual, an independent self with human rights and freedom, has no meaning in the Orient. I should like to explain this by describing a creation myth that can be found in the old Indian work the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which dates from the eighth century before Christ.

In this account the world does not begin with God Almighty, Yahweh, saying Let there be light. Instead, it begins with a self, a being in human form, who looks round and realises that there is nothing there – so the first thing he says is: it is I. And then he begins to understand his solitude and starts to feel afraid, only to realise that since there is nothing apart from himself, there’s no reason for him to fear anything. As a result, his fear fades away, but he still lacks any joy in life, and he wishes for company. At this point he expands and divides himself into male and female parts. The male part embraces the female part, and this is how mankind is created. And then SHE begins to wonder how she can be united with him when he is the same substance as her. So she hides; she is transformed into a cow, and he becomes the bull: thus they create cattle. Then she becomes a mare, while he becomes a stallion, and they create horses…and so on, right down to the tiny ants. After all this he realises that he is creation itself, because he has poured out everything. The Sanskrit word srishti means “that which is poured out”. Everyone who truly comprehends this becomes a creator within this creation.

This creationist myth contains the origin of the Oriental pantheistic view of the world. In contrast, in the corresponding legend in the Bible, God does not divide himself into male and female parts; instead he creates the female being Eve from Adam’s rib, and consequently in this version of the creation, mankind relates to Yahweh in a monotheistic fashion. Now, here in Athens, this fundamentally different mental approach is focused further by the tragic conflict between the individual and the gods, thus establishing the foundation for dialectics in Western philosophy.

Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides created protagonists like Oedipus, Antigone, Orestes, Electra, Jason and Medea and their conflicts with society and fate. These characters of Ancient Greek drama became patterns (models) in certain psychic situations. These patterns live deep in our unconscious and our dreams.

Figure 4: Lars Eidinger as Hamlet, Festival d’Avignon 2008. Copyright: Schaubühne Berlin

Many successful works of theatre, opera and film achieve their power by adopting these patterns from a completely different age and presenting them in a modern setting. Sigmund Freud for instance sees in Shakespeare’s Hamlet a variation of the Oedipus complex. While Hamlet is studying in Wittenberg his uncle is able to murder Hamlet’s father and marry his mother. A deep sense of guilt, combined with jealousy prompted by his mother’s clearly emergent sexuality, triggers the action of the play, and its bloody climax is designed to prompt in us a sense of fear at the archaic forces at work, and of pity for Hamlet.

The hugely successful film “Once upon a Time in the West” also features a childhood drama which has an oedipal dimension in the character played by Charles Bronson. Here too the hero has a terrible burden of guilt relating to the death of his older brother.

When he was just 14 years old a group of gangsters played a brutal game, forcing the boy to play his harmonica while his brother was balancing on his shoulders with his head in a noose. The German title of the film was “Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod”, which means “Play me the song of death”, and that is what the gangster says to the boy: “Play me the song of death!” The brother dies, hanged, when the desperate boy can no longer bear his weight and collapses, still playing the fateful tune. As we watch this scene we feel great pity for the character and are now able to understand why, for the rest of his life, he yearns the moment when he can overcome this trauma.

We could see from an endless series of examples that the ancient myths, when presented from a new perspective, still captivate us. But why should that be the case?

One person who has provided an answer to this question is the American myth researcher Joseph Campbell, author of “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, published in 1949. This work has become a classic, and today it provides the basis for dramatic structure in films, just as Aristotle has provided the basis for dramatic structure in the theatre. Campbell, born in 1904, became interested in mythology during his childhood in New York, when he read books about American Indians and frequently visited the American Museum of Natural History. Campbell’s research led him to the conclusion that the creation of mythology was one of the earliest cultural achievements of mankind, alongside the development of funeral rites. Myths have always existed, in all times and all circumstances. Campbell concludes, and I quote:

It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.

Campbell went further and established that almost all myths can be found, with variations, in every culture. When Cortez and the Catholic conquistadors encountered the Aztecs in Mexico they found in the local religion so many parallels to their own true faith that they were hard put to explain the fact. There was even an incarnate Saviour, associated with a serpent, born of a virgin. A Saviour who had died and was resurrected, whose symbol was a cross.

Many cultures feature legends of heroes born from virgins, who die and are later reborn, like Isis and Horus or Aphrodite and Eros.